Developing a Portrait of a Graduate

  • “In times of change learners inherit the Earth: while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exist” -  Eric Hoffer Click Here To Learn More

    Pike County parents, community members, local employers, pastors, teachers and students were asked in 2013 what the school system should do to prepare students for a dramatically changing world during a year-long community dialog around the purpose of schooling. The input we received set us on a new course; one in which I believe will allow our students the opportunity to fulfil their dreams, and as parents, our dreams for them.

    So, let us begin by setting the stage for the community dialog: schooling has not changed much in the past sixty years. Today’s schools, much like the ones all of us attended, were designed to prepare workers for a manufacturing economy; and, consequently, they look like a factory-students moving from grade to grade with the same pace in the same time window until "Viola", a graduate is made. Unfortunately, many of those factory jobs that schools were preparing students for are now in China.

    The notion that you can graduate from high school, get a job, work for a handful of decades and retire with a comfortable pension is gone. US Department of Labor states that today’s students will average 10-14 jobs by the age of 38-all the while the demand for workers to complete repetitive routine tasks has decreased exponentially due to automation, digitizing, and off-shoring. Students will be, by and large, employed to do jobs involving non-routine tasks, complex thinking, and enhanced communication. To this point, Karl Fisch, in his video documentary Did You Know? , states the top-ten in demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004. Furthermore, he states, “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”

    This is a seismic shift for traditional schooling. Nationally, the response has been to push down expectations to younger and younger students, increase the amount of standardized bubble-sheet testing, and to expand the breadth of curriculum students are expected to know. Not to get too semantically snobbish, but notice we used the word “know” instead of “learn”. We’ll talk about that later.

    In response to all this change, we initiated a conversation with our community and the charge was clear: students must be able to think critically, solve creatively, communicate clearly, and collaborate effectively.

    Personal Responsibility

    We are what we repeatedly do; excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” -Aristotle 

    Successful students are responsible students. Personal responsibility requires intentional, deliberate, and planned actions of an individual (Baumeister & Vohs). These learned behaviors, also termed “executive functions,” demand self-regulation – the process that enables us to plan, initiate, and complete an activity while controlling temper, maintaining attention, and responding to feedback from others. Perhaps the most important aspect of self-regulation is self-reflection, which prompts students to evaluate their performance and learn from their experiences; this spurs change in the future based on past results. Reflecting on successful outcomes promotes self-confidence and a sense of accomplishment, which produces motivated and engaged students.

    We believe responsible students possess the following “habits of the mind” or “soft skills”: 

    • Response Inhibition
    • Working Memory 
    • Emotional Control
    • Sustained Attention
    • Task Initiation
    • Planning/Prioritization
    • Organization
    • Time Management
    • Goal-Directed Persistence
    • Flexibility
    • Self-Monitoring/Metacognition

    By equipping students with these positive skills beginning in pre-school, they will be prepared to enter the workforce upon graduation. Employers indicate personal responsibility is preferred over knowledge of a trade or skill. A trade can be taught; however, responsibility or the lack thereof is typically established as children reach early adulthood. 

    Our teachers have been charged with explicitly teaching and modeling the aforementioned skills. They understand the importance of maintaining emotionally safe classrooms which promote rational thinking and meaningful learning, yet another important aspect of executive functions.

    Critical Thinking

    “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” Albert Einstein

    What does it mean to think critically in the context of schooling? It is simply the process in which we develop an understanding of the world in which we live. Education researchers, Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins state, “To understand is to make sense of what one knows, to be able to know why it’s so, and to have the ability to use it in various situations and context.” The process of developing an understanding requires students to think critically; that is, they…

    • Collect, assess, and analyze relevant information;
    • Reason effectively;
    • Use systems thinking (problem solving tools and methodology);
    • Make sound judgment and decisions;
    • Identify, define, and solve authentic problems;
    • Reflect on learning experiences, processes and solutions. 

    We are partnering with Spalding County, Butts County, The University of Georgia, Gordon State College and Southern Crescent Technical College to open Griffin-Regional College and Career Academy. In the process of developing the college and career academy, we surveyed and spoke with hundreds of regional employers and the message was clear: employers are more concerned with what new employees can do, not what they know. They said give us young people who can think and learn; we’ll train them. The ubiquitous nature of technology and the rapid pace of innovation creates a condition whereby those who can think and learn independently will thrive. Our job is to teach students how to do it. A Google executive was quoted as saying if you have to be managed you can’t work here.


    “Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value.” Sir Ken Robinson

    So often we think of creativity as the fine arts-music, art, drama-and, certainly, these endeavors are creative as participants use their mediums to interpret, challenge and reimagine the world in which we live, however, creativity is much more than the creation of art; it is in part the essence of combining”…seemingly unrelated ideas into something new…” (Daniel Pink, 2006). To this end, students think and problem-solve creatively when they create new and worthwhile ideas; elaborate, refine, analyze, and evaluate their own ideas; demonstrate originality and inventiveness in work and understand real world limits to adopting new ideas.

    Innovation has been the life-blood of the American experience, creating the world’s strongest economy and the highest standard of living. Major economic powers around the world are biding to enhance innovation and discovery. “China is now focusing on how to unleash more creative, innovative juices among its youth” (Thomas Freidman, 2007).

    To address the issue of creative problem-solving, we are engaged in professional learning focusing on student work that requires inquiry and value beyond school. The High School STEM program is experimenting with design challenges to develop solutions using science, technology, engineering and mathematics to solve real-world problems. Creative problem-solving is the most challenging issue we face; it’s just not in the DNA of American education today.

    Communication & Collaboration

    “Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing.” Rollo May

    We are communicating-for better or worse-exponentially more than ever before. Whether we communicate through text message, social media, Email or SnapChat, the ability to leverage a wide array of communication tools purposefully and effectively is increasingly more important in the workplace. The data collected from regional employers was telling: They ranked communication as one of the top 4 work skills and described it as deficient in the existing work force!

    We broadly define communication as,

    • the use of effective interpersonal skills during conversations and discussions to build positive relationships;
    •  delivering clear, concise and accurate ideas through spoken and written words using appropriate technologies and formats; and,
    • listening to decipher meaning including knowledge, values, attitudes and intentions.

    The link between communication and collaboration is evident. How does one collaborate if they do not possess effective communication skills? Thomas Friedman, in his book The World Is Flat, reveals the essence of a “flat” world where traditional hierarchies are replaced by global partnerships and collaboration. These global partnerships redefine the workplace and the skills necessary to succeed. Regional employers said the ability to work with others was essential and sorely lacking in today’s workforce. 

    So, what do we mean by collaboration? Students skilled in collaboration can,

    • demonstrate the ability to work effectively and respectfully across diverse teams;
    • exercise flexibility and willingness to be helpful in making necessary compromises to accomplish a goal;
    • assume shared responsibility for collaborative work, and value the individual contributions made by each team member; and,
    • work productively in teams for sustained periods of time to develop high quality products.

    Why are communication and collaboration so important? The McKinsey Global Institute published a study finding that increasing communication and collaboration through internal and external social technology platforms could potentially add over 1 trillion dollars of value by increasing the productivity of high-skill knowledge workers. Student who can effectively communicate and collaborate will be highly valuable in the workplace of the 21st century.

    In Conclusion 

    “If you want something you’ve never had, then you’ve got to do something you’ve never done.” Dr. Seuss 

    So what? What’s it all mean?

    Preparing students for life beyond school has never been more challenging. Based on your feedback, we feel your support and encouragement to change the dialog around education. Reaching consensus was easier than expected: We need to equip students with skills to navigate a dynamic and rapidly changing world. Regardless of whether you philosophically believe the mission of schools is to produce employable workers, responsible citizens, or both, we can all agree that students who can think critically, problem solve creatively, communicate clearly, and collaborate effectively are better prepared than the students who memorized volumes of loosely connected factual information only to discard it immediately after a test.

    It would be disingenuous to tell you we have this all figured out, because we don’t, but we have a plan. We are engaged in professional learning and curriculum revision so we can deliver high quality instruction focusing on critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. To this end, we are in the process of refining and defining the most important knowledge and skills in the Georgia Standards for Excellence so students can engage learning deeply through inquiry. Educating our children must be more than telling them what to think, but teaching them how to think. Students must be given opportunities to make meaning and discover understandings in all content areas. Being told what you should know and how you should think breeds laziness, apathy, and dependence. It’s just not the American way, so we leave you where we began: “In times of change learners inherit the Earth: while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” (Eric Hoffer) 


    We would like to thank our partners, The Center for Authentic Intellectual Work and EdLeader21, from whose ideas we have borrowed liberally and shamelessly. Additionally, we would like to share with you sources that have framed our thinking:

    • Tony Wagner, The Global Achievement Gap
    • Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind
    • Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat
    • Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design
    • Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way
    • Ken Kay and Valerie Greenhill, The Leader’s Guide to 21st Century Education
    • John Hattie, Visible Learning
    • Mike Schmoker, Focus



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